David Loud holds a unique place in Broadway history. He is best known for his work as a Music Director and as a Vocal and Dance Arranger, but he has also been a Conductor and has acted in three Broadway shows. Having worked with the greats of contemporary Broadway Musicals, his perspective on the American Musical Theatre offers a rare view from the top. A graduate of Yale and currently on the faculty at Manhattan School of Music, Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to visit with him in New York City for this in-depth Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: You have worn many hats on Broadway, including Musical Director, Conductor, Arranger, Vocal and Dance Arranger, and Actor. Consequently, you have seen the American theatre from onstage and from behind the scenes. How has musical theatre changed from the time you graduated college to today?

DAVID LOUD: Well it’s certainly more expensive.

I’ve always loved the term “the fabulous invalid,” which George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart used to describe the American Theatre, and I think it applies equally well to the American Musical Theatre. There are times when I think that the Broadway musical is dying: seeing a lackluster show or two always depresses me, and I worry that we’re headed toward a jukebox Hell of unsophisticated subject matter, sloppy lyrics and derivative music. But then I see something new and creative and surprising, and suddenly there’s hope: the patient is remarkably resilient and a full recovery may be just around the corner. 

I actually don’t think it’s changed that much.

David Loud
When I moved to New York in 1984, the brilliant original Broadway productions of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls were still running, interesting shows like Baby and The Rink were struggling through modest runs, and the theatrical prizefight of the season was between the thrillingly innovative Sunday in the Park with George and the forward thinking but essentially old-fashioned La Cage aux Folles. In 2017, the wildly entertaining original productions of Hamilton and The Book of Mormon are still running, interesting shows like Bandstand and Indecent struggle through modest runs, and the theatrical wrestling match of the season is between the edgily artful Dear Evan Hansen and the creatively staged but essentially old-fashioned Come From Away.

I remain, essentially, an optimist – there are some terrific young writers out there, and, as always, a real need to tell stories, to share the details of the human condition with each other. The musical has always been an exhilarating way to do this; the heightened theatricality of the form remains an unparalleled conduit of delight and genuine emotion.

STAY THIRSTY: You have worked with many of the greats, like Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, James Lapine and John Kander, to name just a few. How did working with such iconic members of the Broadway community influence the trajectory of your career and how did they help you refine and perfect your skills?

DAVID LOUD: I have indeed been extraordinarily lucky. My colleagues have been my teachers and Broadway has been my graduate school.

The experience of being cast (from an open call) at the age of 18 in Hal Prince’s original 1981 production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along gave me a front-row seat in the best classroom I’ve ever been in: the Alvin Theatre, where the masters of the art form were doing battle with an enduringly tough and problematic wild animal. Throw in a brilliant score, an inexperienced cast, and the brave but (in retrospect) disastrous decision to go into previews without an out-of-town tryout, and you have the recipe for the perfect theatrical storm. And while the lightning was flashing, we got to see Prince, Sondheim, and Furth, along with choreographer Larry Fuller and music director Paul Gemignani, come in every day with new ideas, new endings for songs, new transitions, ways to clarify, ways to focus, ways to deepen the action, as well as constant and extensive restaging and rewriting. Until Hal finally froze the show a few days before we opened, we never once performed the same show we had performed the night before. Those five weeks of previews were my own personal master’s degree in understanding the intricate inner workings of a Broadway musical, the do’s and don’ts of collaboration, and the techniques we can use to improve moments in a show that, for one reason or another, don’t seem to be working.

David Loud
I had the great good fortune to meet John Kander and Fred Ebb when Scott Ellis asked me to create the vocal and dance arrangements for And the World Goes ‘Round. The joy of that collaboration led to four of my favorite Broadway experiences: Steel Pier, Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit, all with new Kander & Ebb scores. Doing the vocal arrangements for those scores, supervising the orchestrations, and coaching the actors with the two of them was like having the best private tutors money could buy. John’s music is astonishingly tuneful, deceptively simple and always fresh. Fred’s lyrics can be caustic or funny or bitter or wise or rueful, and never quite what you expect. Their work together is somehow greater than the sum of its parts: there is a third element that appears, something unknown that is conjured, magically … the “&” in Kander & Ebb. 

The conductor of a musical has the best seat in the house. Standing at the podium looking up at the actors, with the orchestra below you and the audience behind you, you are, literally, the beating heart of a complex organism. You are swept up in the emotion and the energy of the stage; you hear every detail of the orchestration coming together to support the singers and dancers, and you can feel the audience’s concentration (or lack thereof) on the back of your neck. I think of the two years I spent conducting the original run of Ragtime on Broadway as a nightly bracing bath of vitality and a free education in expert staging techniques: the way Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele used both the simplest of images and the most complicated technical devices to tell that epic story was breathtaking to be a part of.

As thrilling as it was to have a 28-piece orchestra and 54 singers onstage, as I did on the opening night of Ragtime, I find that I enjoy the intimate side of musical theatre even more. Working on the 1993 She Loves Me revival taught me about the importance of detail and the power of simple, honest acting. Boyd Gaines led a company whose work was subtle and completely free of artifice. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick would give the tiniest little notes – miniscule tempo adjustments, slight changes of emphasis or pronunciation for the actors, phrasing details for the players, dynamics for the chorus – that made all the difference in the world. They were like jewelers fixing up a fancy watch so that it would run a hair more smoothly, sparkle a bit more brightly.  

Even my sabbatical from music directing, the year I spent onstage with Zoe Caldwell, appearing as Manny, the accompanist, in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, turned out to be a riveting learning experience as well. Watching one of our greatest actresses rehearse and perform that huge role was life-changing. Her journey from the rehearsal room to our out-of-town tryouts to her Tony-winning triumph on Broadway was a powerful example of the kind of tireless, specific work that a great star puts into a part that she knows is worthy of her. 

STAY THIRSTY: Broadway legends Lerner and Loewe, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Rogers and Hart helped to form contemporary musical theatre’s DNA. How important is the history of musical theatre to the work that is being created in the 21st century?
DAVID LOUD: I think it’s essential, as artists, that we have a thorough understanding of the rich history of our art form. I challenge my students to become experts in their chosen field. The care and the craft and the creativity that these men, as well as the Gershwins, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Comden and Green, and Jule Styne, put into their songs, is the reason that they have lasted and still speak to us. We must study and explore their work in order to move forward with our own. It’s a highly concentrated history, but not a very long one. The musical is only about a hundred years old. I find it useful to remember that between May of 1895, and December of 1896, four of our greatest lyricists were born, all in New York City. Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, and Ira Gershwin all entered a world in which the American musical, as we know it, did not exist. By the end of their lives, not only had the art form been created, it had been refined and developed and it had matured – they themselves had written such masterpieces as Show Boat, Oklahoma, Carousel, Pal Joey, On Your Toes, Lady in the Dark, Porgy and Bess, and Finian’s Rainbow. Of the four of them, Ira Gershwin lived the longest, until 1983, so his life span also included the premieres of such groundbreaking musicals as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, and Sweeney Todd. 

And at the Manhattan School of Music, which is at Broadway and 122nd St., we are surrounded by this history. Richard Rodgers lived for a time at 3 W. 120th Street. Lorenz Hart was born in Harlem and grew up at 59 West 119th Street. Frank Loesser grew up in a house on W. 107th Street. Oscar Hammerstein I lived at 333 Edgecombe Avenue, and his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, had addresses on East 116th Street and 112th Street. The Gershwin brothers grew up at 108 W. 111th Street and at one point lived in glamorous adjoining apartments at 33 Riverside Drive.  

STAY THIRSTY: Who are the people on your short list to join that list of legends?

DAVID LOUD: Lin–Manuel Miranda, Adam Guettel, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

STAY THIRSTY: How important is rehearsal in the process of mounting a Broadway production? How collaborative is the process of producing a show?

DAVID LOUD: A dear friend of mine, who has a cynical side to her, says that the best part of any job in the theatre is the offer, and that it’s all downhill from there. John Kander, who doesn’t have a cynical bone in his remarkably healthy body, always says that he wishes he could stay in rehearsal forever; the rest of the process (previewing, opening, facing the critics, etc.) he would gladly do without. The rehearsal room is a sacred place. A bunch of artists gather with a common goal: let’s tell a story. How will we tell it? We work out the physical details – what are the tools available to us to tell this story? How can the design help us tell the story that we want to tell? We work on the text – how can we make the story clearer, funnier, deeper, more human, more surprising? We work on the music – is the score telling the same story that the text is? Will underscoring help this moment? Should we button this number or elide musically into the next sequence? If we change an accompaniment figure, will a song become more effective? And we work on the performances – coaching the singing and clarifying the beats, the intentions, the desires of the characters. We become a community, each one of us with a function in service of the whole. In the ideal rehearsal room, everyone is a collaborator, exchanging ideas and communicating with each other with clarity and kindness and trust, all in service of the ultimate goal: that every element of the show is united, gracefully entwined in the telling of a theatrical tale.

STAY THIRSTY: When you walk down the street are you talking on your cell phone or are you observing the world around you?

DAVID LOUD: I love New York but it is a constant challenge. I’m usually running a little behind, just trying to keep my feet out of the puddles and not crash into anyone. 

STAY THIRSTY: As a member of Manhattan School of Music’s faculty, what do you expect the Musical Theatre program to accomplish? How do you think the program has evolved since its inception and how has it been received by the students and by the industry?

David Loud (Credit: Nancie Battaglia)

DAVID LOUD: We’re trying to illuminate the artist that is within each of the amazing students who have entered this program. The extraordinary faculty that Luis Perez assembled is united in this goal, though we all have different techniques, methods and styles. Last year’s Freshman class, our first, got our undivided, passionate attention. It must have been overwhelming! But they’re an incredible group and boy are they developing quickly. We’re two months into our second year now, so we’ve all had a chance to refine our approaches a bit. There is a real hunger to learn in these students, and it makes teaching there a real joy.

STAY THIRSTY: How valuable is the contact between Broadway veterans on the MSM faculty with students in the Musical Theatre program?

DAVID LOUD: That’s the whole point of the program. We’re in New York City, the epicenter of the American Musical Theatre, and the faculty is made up of working professionals, all of whom remain active and connected with their careers in the business. That is valuable indeed, because we’re continuing to learn and grow. If I spend the morning rehearsing a workshop with Susan Stroman and a cast of Broadway pros, the afternoon class that I give in the history of the American Musical Theatre is informed by that experience. Plus, the resources available to us in terms of guest lecturers and visiting artists are mind-blowing! To have actors like Victoria Clark and Joanna Gleason dropping in to give master classes; to have workshops with working Broadway stage managers, agents, and casting directors; to have the convenient proximity of Broadway itself …

I’m not saying that every day is like Christmas morning around here … but it kind of is.

David Loud   

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.